Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl edition)

Let’s talk about toxic religion!


Ask the people in Peshawar. (Though they might have a different answer than you’d think.) Ask in Paris. Ask anybody qui est Charlie. We could ask those affected by the Boko Haram militias spreading like a cancer from northeastern Nigeria, I suppose, if they were still alive, or if we cared about folks so unlike us and so far away. Even in boring old Canada, 2014 brought us faithful killings and rumours of more. What to do when religion goes murderous? (Spare a thought for doctors killed by Christian fundamentalists at abortion clinics, or women abused on Super Bowl Sunday. Beware the deadly fruit of any sort of fanaticism, any belief gone sour, whether it invokes God or racial superiority or football fever.)

You may have heard of “lone wolf” acts of terror in Canada, men allegedly inspired in the name of their Islamic leanings to kill peace-time soldiers who weren’t looking. (Ah, courage.) In the news recently were reports that Muslim Imams here in Ottawa were concerned at the spike of interest in Islam in the wake of the shootings at the national War Memorial and in Parliament itself. Muslim community leaders wondered aloud about some process of slowing down the new-found ardour they were seeing, and they questioned its source. How depressing! People are so desperate for a thing they can stand up for, I thought, they’ll fall for anything! Any port of committed action, however nutty, in an existential storm.

Commentators invoke loneliness and anomie, and lament that the mentally fragile, vulnerable to the attractions of religious madness, don’t get the help they need. What we rarely hear in the public debate is mention of moral bankruptcy, how entire societies and classes and governments appear to have little on their minds other than consumerism, the almighty GDP and personal comforts. How blind must we be to not see how hungry so many people are for a sense of meaning that rises above well I got mine and we’re the greatest country in the world and what’s wrong with those crazy bastards over there? And, more unsettling, right HERE.

North America – and, no doubt, for Muslims and many other sorts of barely tolerated immigrants in France and over much of Europe – is a hard place to be if you’re not on the winning side. (This is why sports are better than real life: one percent of players, no matter how good they were, could never kick the living snot out of a team ninety-nine times bigger, and keep on doing it and doing it.) No wonder the frustrated, “lookin’ like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just coverin’ up” guys, even if they were Born in the USA or Ottawa or a Paris suburb, want to do something about it. Are we so smug, so insulated in whatever socioeconomic or cultural bubble we call home, that we really find such a search for meaning and usefulness incomprehensible? Yes. I think that most of us are.

Young men want to kill authority figures, or go fight with the “men of faith”. They want their lives to mean something, to stand for something. (Suddenly I think of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere….There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man….Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum,…the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Talk about jihad!) This is all I could think of, hearing of an interest in Islam that was worrisome even to Muslim community leaders. It was days before I was able to consider another way of understanding it. There have to be some people (I thought, as the lights came on) who are just curious about what Islam really is. It’s slower to filter through than reflexive religious bigotry is, but after 9-11, after Charlie Hebdo or any number of atrocities committed by those who claim to honour the Arabian Prophet, there are always the voices, not always or even predominantly Muslim themselves, who say, This is not Islam. This is religion perverted to justify power-seeking and oppression.

And people learn something about the vast majority of Muslims, and they wonder what it is that compels believers to peacefully hold on to their faith in spite of suspicion, outright bigotry, and the humiliation, the resentment, the frustration, of constantly having to apologize for the misguided hatred of the fanatical few. I’m not denying that there are Travis Bickles out there who see in jihadist extremism a convenient container for their disaffection and their revenge fantasies. But listen: religion has been around for a lot longer than the fashionably modern rejection of it. There must be something more to religion than hatred and ignorance and division, or it couldn’t have survived. We shouldn’t judge a Book because of a Bickle who carries it around with his rage.

That’s why I went to (of all things!) my local celebration of World Religion Day.

In Part Two, I wade into the teeth of a multifaith storm, and come out unbloodied, unbowed, and pretty darned hopeful. Refreshed. Coming soon. (Pinky-swear!)

Theodore Roosevelt (on deeds-not-words, on *Jihad*)

* In the Islamophobic (and Islam-ignorant) West, we tend to have a hostile perspective on the Muslim concept of jihad, often translated as “holy war”; we think of burning towers, violent coercion and hate. I’m no Islamic scholar, but I think Roosevelt’s famed “Man in the Arena” speech, quoted partially below, is actually a pretty good description of the highest meaning of jihad, as I have come to understand it. I wrote about my efforts in understanding Islam here, plus two other posts that immediately followed. The particular discussion of jihad is in the second one. Roosevelt was talking, in gritty and athletic terms, about citizenship, and I’m fairly sure he wasn’t thinking of jihad at all! It fits, though, and here is part of what he said, the most often-quoted and beloved bit. I love this:

“It is not the critic who counts,…the man who points out how the strong man stumbles….The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,… who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions,…so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech titled “CITIZENSHIP IN A REPUBLIC”, given at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910. A fuller quotation of this part of the speech, along with my commentary about it,  can be found in an entry in the “On First Glance” section of, November 22, 2010.

Learning About Islam II

Here are a few more of the things I learned (and re-learned) about Islam from Dr. Todd Lawson, Islamic Studies professor at the University of Toronto. I and several dozen of my new best friends spent some weekend hours in retreat along the mighty St. Lawrence. (Retreat? Advance.) Doctor L was one of our tour guides.

• Not only are we Headline News-infected with our talk of the Problems of the Middle East, but we are geographically self-centred. The “Middle East”? In comparison to what? (Not China or India or South Africa, I’m thinking. I wonder what Australian media call the region, far to the north and west of that European outpost.)

• Knocks on Islam I: Treatment of Women. Dr. Lawson was emphatic. The Qur’án is quite clear on gender equality. The holy book calls for modesty for both sexes, while the custom of veiling has been exaggerated by male domination. (And stems, in any case, from pre-Islamic cultural norms of protection for upper-class women in busy trading centres). And he reminded us not to be too smug about the so-called glory of the lives of Western women, and to remember how recent are the freedoms accorded to women in our own society.

• KOI II: Polygamy. The allowance of up to 4 wives (with the main purpose of protection of orphaned or otherwise disadvantaged women) was predicated upon absolutely equal treatment for all, in utterly practical economic ways, in a cultural context dramatically different than today’s.

KOI III: Conversion by the Sword. This has been much exaggerated by antagonistic Christians trying to win the “my prophet’s better than yours” game. After the ages-old back-and-forth of conquest and loss between the Persian and Greek empires, the peasant populations of a given area were generally relieved by Muslim conquest: they were not forced to convert; there was a relatively just and consistent social order; culture and education became more readily available. Of course the masses of people became Muslims. Life had become better under the spread of Islam.

• KOI IV: Jihád. “Holy War”, it has often been translated, and that idea is certainly propounded by militants and power-seekers. I’ve heard many Muslims translate it, though, as “spiritual struggle” and consider it more of a personal challenge to live up to the standards of their Faith. I hadn’t heard this story, though, which Lawson shared from (I think) the Hadith (traditions) associated with the life of the Prophet. Muhammad, upon returning from a military sortie to protect the “Dar-el-Islam” (the abode, the haven of Islam) from the aggressive surrounding tribes, told His followers, “I have returned from the lesser jihád to the greater jihád.” Mystified, they asked, “Where is this greater jihád?” The Prophet said nothing, but pointed to his heart.

• KOI V: A Religion of the Law. This knock is an odd one, considering that the Dar-el-Islam eventually brought law, order and peace to an enormous number of people across a huge geographical area. It tries to paint Islam as a harsh and judgemental religion compared to that of Jesus Christ (the “Spirit of God” much revered by the Qur’án) and His message of love. (Let’s leave aside the brutal wars and inquisitions undertaken in the name of Christ. They were about as truly Christian in character as suicide bombings are representative of the teachings of Muhammad. Don’t blame the Messengers!) And yet, every single surih of the Qur’án (but one) begins with an invocation of universal love: In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Converts to Islam, a thousand years ago and still today, do so not because of compulsion (“we cannot change a community until it changes itself”, says the Qur’án) but because of loving examples and a compassionate social order.

I could go on. (Yes, I know, I already have. But I made such great notes!) More anon.